Institute of Interconnected Realities


The Black Box Does Not Exist



The Black Box does not Exist
Engaging with eco-thinking invites us to deeply consider the myriad connections we share with the places we inhabit. More than just physical entities, these places whisper into our senses, shaping our bodies, the curves and corners of our minds, and the expansive realm of our imagination. As we dwell in these places, we are inevitably transformed, molded, and nuanced by them in ways we often fail to fully comprehend. The profound and intricate exchanges that occur between us and our surroundings seep into our subconscious, silently influencing our actions, our thoughts, and our creations.

In the domain of performing arts, one such place that exerts a powerful influence over artists is the black box theatre. The black box is an emblematic symbol and a fundamental place for many choreographers, promising a canvas of unbridled expression where even our most manic visions can be spun into reality. Yet, as enchanting as this promise may seem, it carries with it a labyrinth of complexities that are often overlooked or unquestioned.

When we begin to unpack the black box theatre, to peel back the layers of its dark, alluring surface, we are met with a series of paradoxes. These apparent contradictions ask us to question not just the nature of this supposed place of freedom, but also its very existence as a place. The black box, while symbolizing a space for artistic liberty, seems to hover in a peculiar limbo, creating a phenomenon that beautifully yet bewilderingly eludes its own placeness. This elusiveness beckons us to delve deeper, to understand what it implies for the artists who create within the black box theatre and the art that springs from it.

A History Shrouded in Shadows
The black box theater has its roots in the American avant-garde of the early 20th century. It was initially built in a time of economic recession and became a more easily accessible option for performers and artists, especially those whose interests and aesthetics fell outside of the norm. It only took some paint, some curtains, and a minimal technical setup to transform an empty space into a functioning playbox. The groundwork for such a space had already been conceptualized by the Swiss architect Adolphe Appia and the French theatre artist Antonin Artaud, who in separate terms theorized and experimented with spaces that allowed more flexible staging techniques. However, the first black box theatre which appeared in the US was located in the home living room of actor and manager Gilmore Brown of Pasadena, California. Following the success of Gilmore Brown the black box became increasingly popular and widespread not only as a more affordable and adaptable solution but also as an expression of defiance against the elitist nature of traditional theatres. These older institutions, with their grand architectural designs, luxurious ornamentation, and strict social hierarchies, were far removed from the reach of the common populace. They were fortresses of privilege, their imposing structures reflecting the chasms of class and power that marked society. In contrast, the stark arrangement of the black box seemed to bypass these constraints, allowing a radical spatial flexibility that invited artists to explore new frontiers of performance and audience engagement. By the 1960s the black box theatre had achieved its formal status of being a space for artistic freedom and radical innovation.

Yet, as much as the black box represents a break from the past, it is, in essence, a material representation of the very space it sought to replace. It was conceived in the image of the inaccessible theatre, holding within its walls echoes of its precursor. In this sense, the black box becomes a meta-place, a place that denies its own specificity in its inherent reference to somewhere else. It stands as an embodiment of the traditional theatre, while simultaneously distancing itself from it. This unique duality presents the first paradox in our understanding of the black box as a place. Even as it appears as an accessible space for art, it is tethered to the very entity it rejects, thus weaving the old into the new in a complex tapestry of spatial and historical relationships.

An Elusive Realm Beyond Place
At this stage in our contemplation on the black box theatre and its elusive mystique, it seems appropriate to introduce some nuance to the concept of "place". At face value, it might seem a straightforward concept, but its understanding has been extensively debated and refined over time. The realm of philosophical discourse has primarily wrestled with two distinct interpretations.

On one hand, place is considered purely as a topological entity, a specific location in space determined strictly by a set of coordinates—latitude, longitude, elevation, and the like. This is the geometric understanding of place, reducing it to a mere component of a larger spatial fabric.

Contrarily, another lens through which place is viewed perceives it as a milieu. This perspective sees place as an arena where physical, social, and economic (etc.) processes converge, with each place exercising a type of mediating role in these processes. This phenomenological approach sees place as not just a pinpoint on a map but as a distinctive gathering of factors and experiences.

Inherent in the essence of the black box theatre is a lean toward the geometric understanding of place. Its stark, monotonous construction conveys an abstraction, a blank canvas seemingly devoid of the intricacy and richness that a phenomenological interpretation of place offers. Rather than a conventional locale, the black box takes on the role of non-space, a conceptual void, poised to be filled with imagination and creative interpretation.

However, this distancing from geographic specificity also comes at a cost as it causes a disconnection between the performance from its environmental context. The black box, by placing the artist as the pivotal figure with the ultimate creative authority, subtly insinuates a hierarchy that, in its very structure, downplays the significance of environment. Inadvertently it relegates the role of the environment to that of a background setting, instead of being an active, intrinsic part of the performance space and process.
As we navigate through an era increasingly marred by ecological crises, the clarion call is for us to reestablish our connections with our environment. The black box theatre, with its propensity for creating an elusive realm beyond place, may paradoxically pose more of a challenge than a facilitator in our journey to probe the depths of our interconnectedness as beings.

A Displacement Dilemma
Freelance artists whose work is meant to be performed in a black box are more often than not faced with a unique paradox. Their primary workspace, the black box, is often not where their work is developed. It rather functions as the culmination point, the final destination of a creative journey that originates in other environments, such as international residencies or smaller studios. While this way of working might bring inspiration and provide opportunities to network etc. it invariably establishes a kind of migratory pattern. Consequently, artists that work under these conditions must develop robust skills in navigating through diverse landscapes. While for many artists traveling (or simply being on the move) is an essential part of their practice and their chosen lives, at the same time, this constant migration may also cause an underlying sentiment of homelessness, of always being in pursuit of a sense of belonging that feels perpetually unreachable.

Another aspect that is brought to the forefront when looking at this subject from an eco-critical point of view, is the inherent disconnect in the artistic process. Artworks are conceptualized and nurtured in spaces with their own unique ecologies, cultural underpinnings, histories, and socio-political narratives. But they premiere and tour in the context-less vacuum of black box theatres, where these intrinsic characteristics are wiped clean. How does this kind of displacement impact the creation of artistic work and the reception of it?

For the artist, this means the black box often exists in their processes as a memory or a meta-place, an abstraction of a place. Their work must then reckon with this ambiguity. Their creations are molded by one environment and yet must be flexible enough to exist elsewhere. Thus, the black box becomes a shadow, both there and not there in the artistic process.

In a time where we're reevaluating our connection to our surroundings and the importance of place, this poses a series of significant dilemmas. The translation of a work from one place to another, especially to a place that lacks any of the original's context, is a complex negotiation. And the question becomes: Can artistic work created under these circumstances express interconnectedness if it's created in one place and then displayed in another that denies it that context?

A Theatre of Denial?
Throughout this journey into the heart of the black box theater, complex paradoxes emerge. Despite its seemingly straightforward appearance, the black box reveals itself to be a microcosm of contradictions, a complex labyrinth that challenges our conventional notions of place and artistic creation.

Its roots entrenched in the rebellion against traditional theatre’s exclusivity, the black box itself inadvertently retains vestiges of the past it sought to replace. It embodies a unique duality, straddling the line between a symbol of defiance and an echo of what it rejects. This dichotomy intricately weaves the old with the new, crafting a complex matrix of spatial and historical relationships.

In its aesthetic abstraction and contextual sterility, the black box emerges as an elusive realm beyond conventional place definitions. It leans towards a geometric interpretation of place, its stark monotony stands in contrast to the rich tapestry of experiences encapsulated by a phenomenological understanding. This distancing from geographical context creates a compelling disconnect, subtly imposing an artistic hierarchy that diminishes the role of the environment and underlines a persistent dilemma of belonging.

The journey of a freelance artist further illuminates this paradox. The work originates in specific spaces with unique ecologies and narratives, yet culminates in the context-less vacuum of a black box theatre. This dichotomy sparks a pivotal question: Can artistic expressions genuinely depict interconnectedness if they originate in one place and are showcased in another that lacks that contextual grounding?

In our evolving discourse on eco-consciousness and interconnectedness, the black box theatre challenges us to probe deeper and revise our understanding of place in the context of artistic creation. As we navigate through these layered paradoxes, we begin to discern that the black box, in all its enigmatic allure, perhaps doesn’t exist in the conventional sense. Instead, it materializes as an intricate tapestry of contradictions, a meta-place suspended in an intriguing limbo that eludes its own placeness. In this captivating paradox, we may find the inspiration to reconceptualize our approach toward understanding and engaging with the places we inhabit. After all, to echo the sentiment of artist Robert Smithson, “A work of art when placed in a gallery loses its charge, and becomes a portable object or surface disengaged from the outside world.” The essence of artistic work is not just in creation but also in its connection and resonance with the viewer, the context, and the world at large. If the black box theater is to exist, it cannot be a theater of denial; it needs to transform into a theater of care, acceptance, and accountability - addressing its complexities, its historical shadows, and its paradoxes. Approaching these dilemmas earnestly could potentially prompt a significant shift in the position and role that the theatre traditionally holds within our cultural landscapes. Yet, this recontextualization might be the very transformation we require.

Institute of Interconnected Realities (I—IR) - A Choreo­graphic Curation - A Performance Group - A Knowledge Producing Platform -